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Medieval Queens

By Laurel A. Rockefeller

©2017 Laurel A. Rockefeller. All rights reserved.

Medieval Queens is a work of narrative history based on events in the lives of Chinese Empress Wu Zetian, Welsh Princess Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, and Empress Matilda of England constructed using primary and secondary historical sources, commentary, and research.


Consulted sources appear at the end of this book. Interpretation of source material is at the author’s discretion and utilized within the scope of the author’s imagination, including names, events, and historical details.

Where applicable, Pinyin Romanization is used exclusively in the text of this book. Names using other Romanization systems such as Wade-Giles were converted into pinyin for consistency and accurate pronunciation of Chinese words.

Share the love of this book and the Legendary Women of World History Series by kindly reviewing this book on your blog, website, and on major retailer websites. Your review not only offers this author your feedback for improvement of this book series, but helps other people find this book so they can enjoy it as well. Only a few sentences and a few minutes of your time is all it takes to share the love with those who want to enjoy it too.




Chapter One: Cai Ren

Chapter Two: Zhaoyi

Chapter Three: Real Power



Suggested Reading


Gwenllian’s Tears

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five


Suggested Reading And Bibliography


Empress Matilda Family Tree


Chapter One: Princess Of England

Chapter Two: Holy Roman Empress

Chapter Three: The Death Of Princes

Chapter Four: Anarchy And Civil War


Prayers In Latin And Their Translations


Suggested Reading And Bibliography

About This Series



“Miss? Miss, where do you think you are going?” asked the British soldier gruffly, grabbing the arm of the well-dressed teenaged girl walking down Dongjiaomin Lane, her dark brown hair contrasting against her ruby-encrusted hair pin.

“Hands off me, barbarian!” snarled Hua-Lin with fire in her green eyes. “I am no coolie, no slave! Who do you think you are grabbing me as if I were some animal?”

Three soldiers joined the first soldier, surrounding Hua-Lin menacingly. Closing in close to her body, they fondled the silk of her finely embroidered Manchu gown, its design marking her as a great-granddaughter of the Qianlong Emperor. Laughing, the youngest of the soldiers unbuttoned two of the buttons over her chest securing her gown together while the others pinned her arms behind her back, his intent only too clear to the noble Hua-Lin, “May the ravens and falcons of Abka Hehe devour your heart!”

As if an answer to her prayer, a British captain strode up behind the gang barking authoritatively, “Why you pathetic excuse for a soldier! You dare call yourself Englishmen! Be gone with you and confine yourself to barracks until further notice!”

“Sir! Yes sir!” saluted the gang of soldiers in unison.

“DISMISSED!” ordered the captain. As the gang marched off to their barracks, the captain knelt before Hua-Lin, re-buttoning her gown chivalrously, “I beg your pardon and forgiveness my lady!”

“You know who or at least what I am?”

“Only a relative of the emperor is allowed to wear that shade of yellow,” observed the captain.

“My grandmother was a daughter of the Qianlong Emperor,” clarified Hua-Lin.

“What is your name, if I may ask?”

“Hua-Lin. It means flowering forest in your language. I know it is not a proper Manchu name; my father was Chinese. He respected Manchu culture, of course, but his spiritual path was Buddhist; the old ways of my mother’s people were unknown to him. I was born here in Beijing, but raised in a village in protected tribal lands. There I learned the culture and traditions of the Manchu people. My father was rarely home; he worked for the government before the Arrow War took his life.”

“What a beautiful story, Hua-Lin – if I may address you as such?”

“After preserving my honour – yes you may. Do you have a name as well, Captain?”

“Mann, Richard James Mann. If your ladyship prefers, Richard is acceptable – though not to those blokes.”

“Where are you from?”

“Colchester; it’s an ancient town off in the southeast of England. Perhaps not unlike Beijing itself,” offered Captain Mann gently. “About eighteen hundred years ago a great queen waged a war of independence against the forces of the Roman empire who – I suppose much like my own British Empire has in both India and now China – sought to colonize and conquer our island of Britannia,” explained Richard.

“What happened? Was she successful? Did she free your people?”

“No – no, she failed. She was lured into a trap by the Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus; rather than become a trophy of war she and her daughters committed suicide. To protect them, her people cremated their remains to deny the Romans complete victory,” recalled Richard, the significance of Boudicca’s story hitting him in light of the Treaties of Tianjin which forced the Qing dynasty into giving Britain the very legation that brought him and his comrades in arms to Beijing.

“So she failed.”

“Some may say. But her legend was never forgotten. Today we remember her as a great heroine.”

“Not unlike Wu Zetian was,” remarked Hua-Lin.


“Empress Wu Zetian, the only woman to ever rule in her own right over the Chinese. She declared her own dynasty – the Zhou dynasty – which of course did not work out. But in her lifetime learning flourished, the arts flourished, and Han Chinese women regained many of their civil liberties,” prefaced Hua-Lin.

“Sounds like quite a woman – like present company,” laughed Richard amiably. “I would really like to hear more.”

“My home is over there,” motioned Hua-Lin, pointing in the direction of the British Legation.

“On the other side of the British Legation?”

“Legation! British officers now sleep in the same room where I was born!”

“I am only a captain, my lady. I cannot return your home to your family. I do not have that kind of power. But I can take you to my humble home – if you will trust me – and from there, to your current home if you like,” offered Captain Mann. “I was actually about ready to head for home for tea. Will you join me and tell me about this Empress Wu Zetian?”

Hua-Lin took Captain Mann’s offered arm politely, “With pleasure.”

Chapter One: Cai Ren

Wu Zhao dipped her brush pen into the murky black inkwell in front of her, an imprint lined practice page in front of her. Rolling the brush against the lip of the inkwell to refine its point, she counted her strokes carefully as she practiced the character “lǐ” meaning “propriety,” writing the character repeatedly until it filled up the first line. Looking up at her tutor reading the “Analects of Confucius,” the thirteen-year old chancellor’s daughter raised her voice, “Laoshi, why is propriety important for women?”

“Propriety in speech protects the family’s honour, especially when it comes to women,” answered her twenty-five-year-old teacher. “Your father Chancellor Wu Shihuo wants you to fully understand all four virtues of women under the teachings of Confucius before he finds you an honourable match.”

“An honourable match? Why all this focus on marriage and housekeeping skills? I would much rather read than spin, weave, or sew!” declared Zhao assertively.

Her tutor stood up harshly, closing his book with a thump, “Your father indulges you far more than is proper! You think even the daughters of the emperor are given such an education? Education is for men, not women!”

Zhao eyed him coolly, “And yet you accepted my father’s commission to teach me. Interesting is it not?”

“Wealthy men like your father can afford eccentricities like this. He pays me well.”

“Ah! But will he still pay you upon learning you are too prejudiced to do your duty?” countered Zhao shrewdly.

Wu Zhao’s tutor shifted the subject slightly, “Duty? It is your duty to write “li” until I tell you to stop. How many times have you written it just now?”

Zhao counted, “yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qiu, ba, jiu. Nine!”

“Keep writing until you have written it thirty times,” commanded the tutor.

Zhao acquiesced as she dipped her pen back into the ink, “Shi, laoshi!”

“You asked to see me, Baba?” asked Wu Zhao as she knelt to sit at the feet of her father by the fire, her eyes downcast respectfully.

Chancellor Wu Shihuo pushed up the long voluminous sleeves of his coat before laying his hands-on top of her head, “Yes, baobei.”

Zhao met his eyes, “What is it, Father?”

“I have both good news and bad news for you at the same time. Come spring, you will be leaving here for Chang An.”

“The imperial capital city?”



“You know why I think. Of all my sons and daughters, you are the brightest, the most learned. Your sisters are more than happy to sit with a needle; you are ever restless if any dares put needle, spindle, or loom anywhere near you!” smiled Chancellor Wu.

“You’ve made a match for me, haven’t you?” frowned Wu Zhao.

“I have.”

Zhao sighed, using her mental discipline to conceal her irritation and disappointment, “Who?”

“Emperor Taizong. You are to be one of his cai ren, a low-ranking concubine. Forgive me, it was the best I could do. When my peers learned of your … peculiar habits, I am afraid none of them wanted you for their sons.”

“Any man who cannot handle a woman of intelligence and education is not worth my time – let alone my body!” declared Wu Zhao proudly.

“My daughter, do you know how disrespectful that sounds?”

“Disrespectful to whom? A long dead politician whose only interest was power? Why do we care about these books, these Analects anyway? It’s pure propaganda! Sexist propaganda no less! We call the peoples north of the Great Wall savages, but how can this be so? They have women leading them – secular and religious women – and pray to goddesses and gods both! Maybe we Han are the savages and the northern peoples are the civilized ones!”

“That is treason, Zhao!” corrected the chancellor.

“And impropriety because I am a young woman!”

“Yes,” agreed Wu Shihuo. “Which is why it is best you serve the emperor as cai ren. Surely you cannot make any trouble among the multitudes of women belonging to him.”

Zhao smirked, “Don’t bet on it!”

Chancellor Wu stood up, offering his hand to his daughter to help her rise as well, “Well at least as cai ren you are unlikely to ever see the emperor or come to his bed. That should limit your mischief.”

Zhao shook her head as her father strode out of the room, muttering quietly, “We shall see!”

Spring came to Wenshui County in Shanxi province far too quickly for Wu Zhao who herself had never before travelled the one thousand one hundred eight Chinese li between her home and the imperial palace, a distance of three hundred seventy miles. After months of blissful forgetfulness regarding the arranged marriage, Wu Zhao found herself confronted with its reality as her father’s servants inevitably packed two trunks filled with her most prized possessions and placed them in a wagon along with the chancellor’s gifts to the emperor. Finally, the day arrived with little ceremony or fanfare. Dutifully she boarded the carriage, never to return home again.

Two weeks later Wu Zhao’s carriage passed through an ornately carved wooden gate set among Chang An’s thick earthen work walls. Following the carefully aligned grid of city streets, the carriage driver steadily drove through the entire capital city, the northern wall of Chang An forming the southern wall of its Imperial City.

Pinning back the silk curtains to her carriage, Zhao observed the sights, smells, and sounds of the bustling capital. Nowhere in the world held such a mix of cultures, religions, and products for sale, not even in Constantinople, capital of what remained of the formerly glorious Roman Empire.

As the carriage pulled through Chang An’s northern gate into the Imperial City, the keen minded teenager noted the sounds of music and women’s voices which were sometimes melodic and sometimes very chaotic.

Finally, the carriage stopped. Five eunuchs surrounded her carriage as another surrounded the wagon from home carrying her father’s gifts to the emperor. With dizzying efficiency, she found her personal belongings and her father’s gifts whisked away with barely a sound as a senior eunuch looking older than her father helped her step down, “This way, my lady!” Uncertain what protocol said to do, she followed the eunuch to what looked like some sort of simple bedroom shared with four other women. The eunuch took her to the empty bed, her trunks already stowed beneath, “This is your home now.”

“When do I appear before the Son of Heaven?” asked Wu Zhao assertively.

“You do not,” replied the senior eunuch.

“I do not understand. How can I be his concubine and yet not meet him?” queried Wu Zhao intelligently.

The eunuch laughed, “You are only cai ren, his consort-in-ordinary. You are not worthy of his divine and holy presence!”

“Then what am I worthy of?”

“Doing what you are told!”

“By whom? Who is my master if not the Son of Heaven?”

“Empress Zhangsun, of course! She is mistress of all that is here! After her, you shall obey Consorts Xu Hui, Yang, Yin, Yan, and Wei as they command,” proclaimed the eunuch.

“And what shall I call you?”

“I am a eunuch. I have no name,” replied the eunuch simply. “Your belongings are here. Take your time to acquaint yourself with where you are and those living with you. Expect no help from anyone. Come when you are called.” With the slightest of bow of his head to acknowledge her, the eunuch left her alone.

As soon as he was out of sight, Zhao pulled out one of her trunks. Opening it, she located her copy of “Explaining and Analysing Characters,” the standard Chinese character dictionary. Clutching the heavy book to her heart, she closed the trunk, replaced it under her bed, and then sat upon her bed to read.

“Wu Zhao! Wu Zhao!” called the senior eunuch whose gruff welcome Wu Zhao never forgot.

Sitting on a comfortable cushion and with a lap desk comfortably over her, Wu Zhao practiced her calligraphy, intentionally ignoring the eunuch until his shadow covered her desk. Zhao looked up at him, “Yes?”

“The Son of Heaven calls you into court,” barked the eunuch.

Wu Zhao put down her pen, “Did he say why?”

“One does not question the Son of Heaven.”

“Since you are not his majesty, my question still stands.”

“I do not know why; my job is to obey,” growled the eunuch.

Wu Zhao set her desk off to the side so she could rise, meeting his eyes as she did so, “Very well. Take me to him.”

The senior eunuch led Wu Zhao past several official buildings until they reached the emperor’s own private apartment. Surprised, Zhao wondered if the emperor now expected her to serve him with wifely duties, something she found herself now wholly unprepared to do after months of assertions from others that she would never so much as meet the emperor.

At a desk sat the Taizong emperor clad in imperial yellow, his massive outer coat heavily embroidered with blue Chinese dragons. Ten paces from where the emperor sat, both the eunuch and Wu Zhao kowtowed before him, their heads reverentially touching the wooden floor. Taizong stood up, “You may sit.” Wu Zhao obeyed, raising her head and back to a comfortable sitting position, but keeping her eyes lowered respectfully. Taizong motioned to the eunuch, “Thank you for bringing her; you may go!” Obediently, the eunuch slithered out of the royal presence while Taizong focused on Zhao, “You are Chancellor Wu Shihuo’s daughter?”

“I am.”

“You are well educated I am told.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“Stories have reached me that you are wholly unsuitable to be my cai ren. Have you heard them?”


“What say you about them? Speak plainly.”

“I say that it is for the Son of Heaven to best decide how I may best serve him. If it is his will to quicken me with his son, then so be it. But if I may serve in another way, I am pleased to offer my life and my skills to him,” offered Wu Zhao.

“I heard a story that you read the dictionary every day. Is that true?”

“One never knows when one may need to know how to write a certain word precisely. I study that I may serve you.”

“Then serve me.”

“How, Your Majesty?”

“My court is filled with politicians I do not trust, most of them after power or wealth. I cannot trust them to render my rulings accurately. I need an aide, someone I can trust to write my words as I speak them – not as they would twist them for selfish motives. Will you serve me in this way?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“May I ask one other thing of you?”

“Always, Your Majesty.”

“Rise and let me see you.” Wu Zhao complied, breaking protocol and meeting his eyes. Emperor Taizong walked around her to take a better look at her, “You are beautiful! Therefore, I name you Mei Niang: charming and lovely. Serve me Mei. I command it.”

“As you wish, so it shall be.”

“Thank you – now sit here and take my pen. I require your help in writing to your father,” beckoned the emperor, showing Mei Niang his work in progress.

Eleven years passed. Almost every day Wu Zhao rose early and worked past sunset as the emperor’s favourite and most trusted secretary, helping him craft many of his reforms like the restructuring of Chinese clans based on merit. Though the emperor continued to call her by the nickname “Mei” and remained mindful that he could exercise his rights as her husband at any time, Taizong himself felt far too close to Mei personally and professionally to change their relationship, preferring instead to simply smile at her when he observed her beauty or when she made a cunning political argument while working together.

“Come here, Mei,” beckoned the emperor.

Summoned, Wu Zhao bowed her forehead to the floor once, and then rose to stand next to him, “How many I be of service?”

“I want your input on this battle plan I’m finalizing. Do you think we can defeat the Goguryeo?”

Zhao took the reports from the emperor’s hands and skimmed them, “Maybe – but not easily. I honestly cannot tell based on this intelligence if we can make any progress against them. Our people are war-weary, Your Majesty. Another foreign war – I just do not know if we can be victorious.” Taizong coughed heavily, a look of fatigue in his eyes. Wu Zhao studied him, “Are you well, Your Majesty?”

Taizong met her eyes, “No. I should stay in bed today, but I fear if I do so the palace gossip will be all over it and some quack of a healer will give me mercury to drink or some foolish thing they think will help me.” Wu Zhao tried to conceal her worry – and her disregard for the palace physicians but her face said everything. “What is that supposed to mean, Mei? I am fifty-one years old, you know!”

“You are still young,” asserted Wu Zhao.

“I was quite the warrior in my youth, you know. Before you came here to the palace I forced my father to abdicate the throne.”

“Is it true you killed two of your brothers in order to become your father’s heir?”

“I did. Oh, I know it must sound terrible to you, but it was the only way to become emperor.”

“You have been a good emperor, Your Majesty, a true champion of the common person – woman and man both. My tutor thought that I was arrogant and far too masculine to ever make anything of myself.”

“Because you prefer to debate public policy with me instead of debating which shade of blue to use on a cloud in a tapestry?”

Zhao smiled, “Yes! Great example, isn’t it?”

“Well, I am a Buddhist you know!”

“And a patron of a version of that strange religion from the west. What do you call it?”

“Christianity. Yes. Not the Roman style of course, but one of the forms popular in the remaining Byzantium Empire. There is a Roman Catholic church here in Chang An, but mostly traders from the west attend its services. This literal trinity idea simply makes no sense to us – nor should it I suppose.”

“You are quite remarkable – in your ideas, your policies your – “

“– my choosing of one of my cai ren to be my secretary and aide?”

“Yes, that too!”

“I know I will die soon, Mei. I want to tell you something though before I relent and head to my bed, perhaps for the last time.”

“What is it?”

“I never touched you as your husband. But it was not out of any deficit on your part. Rather it was that I have always respected you far too much to let myself summon you.”

“I do not understand.”

“Then let me speak plainly. There is little time left to speak. When I am a husband, I behave – differently – more selfish. It is a very one-sided matter for me; I do not think about her when we’re together. You, however, I honour and respect. The idea of treating you like that is unthinkable. You deserve love, Mei. I cannot offer you romantic love – only the esteem I feel for you as my aide and my friend. I suppose in that way I love you best.”

“May I speak plainly then, Your Majesty?”


“You are kind, generous, and have always ruled wisely and well. We have worked together drafting the right words for your policies, after all. But never once have you mistreated me nor disrespected me. I wish to thank you for that, for giving me a far better life here than I could have asked for.”

Emperor Taizong rose weakly, “You are dismissed from my service, Mei Niang. May your life after my passing be forever happy.” Wu Zhao put her forehead to the hand still holding hers respectfully. Taizong caressed her face with his other hand before releasing her. Zhao turned, looking upon the Son of Heaven before leaving. She would never see him again.

Chapter Two: Zhaoyi

Three days later, the imperial city heralded Emperor Taizong’s son Li Dan as his successor. Though officially in charge, Li Dan observed a proper period of official mourning before attending to the details of his coronation as the new “Gaozong” emperor.

While the Gaozong publicly grieved and the public honoured Taizong with his grand state funeral, Buddhist nunneries across China readied themselves to receive their share of Taizong’s concubines. Eunuchs laboured furiously to pack the belongings of each concubine, taking great care to label everything to ensure the correct trunks were sent to the correct nunneries.

As preparations finalized across the women’s quarters, Gaozong strolled almost unmarked among the chaos, allegedly to supervise the progress. From inside her room, Wu Zhao silently packed mementos of her years of service to Emperor Taizong, including a small jade necklace given to her for her twentieth birthday. Less trusting of the eunuchs today than she was even upon her arrival to the imperial city eleven years ago, she carefully fastened the necklace, positioning it to frame her collarbone. Into her hair she set another gift from the Son of Heaven: a jade and pearl comb made of carved ivory. Gaozong watched her reverence towards the gifts, “Did my father give those to you?”

Startled, Wu fell to her knees, “Your Majesty! I did not know you were here!”

“No need to bow. I am not here as your lord and master, but the young man you used to know,” corrected the emperor. “You were very close to the Son of Heaven, weren’t you?”

“Not in the way the others were.”

“Yes, I know. You still have never been close to a man. More the pity the law requires you spend your life in a nunnery.”

“I am a devout Buddhist, Your Majesty. This is no hardship to me. I would far rather spend my life in prayer than suffer the cruelty most women must endure.”

“Do you ever wish to be more than just a cai ren, Mei Niang?”

“I am a scholar used to working in the government. I was never ‘just’ a cai ren,” corrected Zhao.

“What do you think of the reforms my father made?” asked Gaozong, his mind now curious about Wu Zhao’s political experience.

“He did not go far enough. I am grateful he employed women in the government – but we are far from truly equal.”

“What if you served in my government, what would you do?”

“I think it would be difficult for me to serve you from the nunnery in Wenshui county.”

“What if you did not have to stay there? What would you do?”



“I would expand upon the start made by your father. I would do more to stop corruption and family-based pathways to power, to make government service about who can best do each job,” declared Wu Zhao.

Gaozong smiled, “I like it! What would you think if I came to Wenshui to speak further with you?”

“You are the emperor.”

Gaozong laughed, “And so I am.”

Six months later bells tolled in the Wenshui nunnery located just five miles from the house where Wu Shihuo still lived with Wu Zhao’s younger brothers and sisters. The road thundered as the imperial retinue approached Wu Shihuo’s home. Chancellor Wu Shihuo bowed deeply as Emperor Gaozong dismounted from his horse, “Your Majesty! An unexpected visit!”

“Is your daughter still in the nearby nunnery?” asked the emperor.

“Yes, she is. I visited her a month ago,” answered Chancellor Wu.

“Has she spoken of her time serving my late father?”

“No, Your Majesty. But then I would not expect her to do so. It would not be proper for her to acknowledge to my face that she held the greater power over matters of state.”

“No, no I suppose not.”

“How fares Your Majesty since his coronation?”

“Your daughter was a light to the inner court. I suffer from the lack of that light. Therefore, I shall journey to the Wenshui nunnery in the morning, availing myself tonight of your hospitality.”

“I live to serve Your Majesty. My home is yours for as long as you desire to grace us with your divine light!” bowed Chancellor Wu.

The next morning Emperor Gaozong and his retinue slipped quietly through the mountains. As they reached the nunnery they heard the quiet footsteps of twenty nuns walking together after their morning meditation. Without ceremony the emperor slipped between two trees to watch the red-clad nuns before pulling one quickly from the end of the line. Wu Zhao recognized him at once and tried to kowtow. Gaozong stopped her with his touch, a nod of his head signalling for her to come with him.

Finding a secluded spot, Gaozong sat her down on a nearby bench. Wonder filled Zhao’s eyes, “What are you doing here?”

“Looking for you.”


“Why do you think?”

“I do not dare guess or second guess the Son of Heaven.”

“Yes, you do!” smiled Gaozong. “That is perhaps why I am here. You do not belong in a nunnery. That you can hardly refute, even if protocol permitted it.”

“I think you have me at a disadvantage. Clearly your father and I were not nearly as alone as I perceived when we were engaged in affairs of state.”

Gaozong laughed, “Alone? In the imperial city? That will never happen!” Gaozong touched the side of her face, “They shaved your head.”

“Hair is a woman’s vanity. No nun must ever think she is beautiful.”

“You are beautiful, Mei Niang—or shall I call you Zhao?”

“Every time I hear the name ‘Mei Niang’ I think of your father.”

“Then I shall call you Zhao instead. May I ask you a personal question, Zhao?”

“You are the emperor.”

“Did my father ever touch you as a husband touches his wife or concubine?”

“No—he said he respected me too much for my mind to indulge himself thusly. Do not get me wrong; I think he was attracted to me. But he respected me and I respected him.”

“And would you respect me if I told you that I was always jealous of him for possessing you? What would you say if I said that I have dreamed of you, yearned for you, thought about you in the night when I was with my empress and my concubines? Not having you at the palace is a torment. I must have you—if you will consent to having me.”

“I live to obey.”

“I do not want your obedience—not like the way they do. I want far more of you than that. I want nothing less than mind, body, and soul. So, I ask you: will you have me?”

Zhao met his eyes, “Yes.” Pleased the emperor kissed her tentatively, then passionately after feeling her kiss him in return.

Four years passed. Wu Zhao, now holding the rank of zhaoyi, a second-grade concubine walked confidently through the women’s quarters to her own private apartment, her mind whirling romantically with memories of the night before in the emperor’s bed. Right before she reached the red door Empress Wang suddenly moved to block her path, “Still scheming, Wu Zhao?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about. I was just returning to check on my sons and see if they are hungry,” smiled Wu Zhao.

“So you feel secure in your position, do you?”

“Why should I not? I have two sons; you have none. And…I do believe I am pregnant once more! Obviously, the emperor prefers me in bed over you!”

“You should still be in the nunnery! It is incest for you to go to his bed!”

“That decision is the emperor’s—not yours,” reminded Zhao slyly.

“You broke your vows even in the nunnery!” accused Empress Wang.

“If you are saying I lured the Son of Heaven into my bed, I assure you nothing of the sort happened. Indeed, I was never touched by anyone until two years ago when he recalled me from Wenshui and into his bed.”

“You are a liar!”

“If I am—and I am not—then at least I am quickly becoming the emperor’s favourite. Now if you will kindly excuse me, I have my sons to care for.” Growling Empress Wang stepped aside, allowing Wu Zhao to pass. As she crossed the threshold Wu Zhao turned back towards her, “Do not think your position is too secure, Empress Wang. A zhaoyi with healthy sons is always favoured over a barren empress.”

Six months later Wu Zhao delivered her child, a healthy princess for whom she had not yet chosen a name. After putting her daughter down for a nap, Wu sat down for a simple luncheon of rice, chicken, hot and sour soup, and pork dumplings. A dessert of sweetened red bean paste surrounded by sticky white rice soaked in honey delighted her palate. Feeling happy and full, Zhao sang as she walked back home. A shadowy figure darted quickly out of Wu Zhao’s apartment, raising the hairs on Zhao’s arms. Instinctively she ran inside to find her daughter dead in a basin of water. Zhao screamed hysterically as she picked up the new-born. Wailing and weeping she rocked the child in her arms as if she could somehow bring the child back to life. Alerted by the cries, Empress Wang stepped into Zhao’s apartment. Fury filled Zhao’s eyes, “YOU! YOU DID THIS!”

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” answered Wang

“Do not play innocent with me! You murdered her!”

“You’re mad! Why would I do that? I have nothing to gain by killing her. Your sons, yes, but not this baby,” slithered Empress Wang. “I think you killed her so you can accuse me of murder. You want to be empress, I know you do! Being third in the palace is not good enough for you, is it? Not after all the power you tasted as Emperor Taizong’s secretary. Power is all you care about, Zhao. I do not think you care whose body you have to walk over to gain power.”

“Really? You think I am that ambitious?” scoffed Wu Zhao.

“Regardless you shall become empress only over my dead body,” challenged Empress Wang as she left.

Wu Zhao watched her leave, “If you insist….”

“You summoned me?” asked Wu Zhao as she finished kowtowing to the Son of Heaven in his throne room.

Emperor Gaozong motioned for her to rise and approach him, “In light of Empress Wang and Consort Xiao’s clear guilt in the murder of your daughter I have decided to depose them and put them in prison. I therefore confer on you the title of Empress.”

Empress Wu kissed him, “You are too kind to me.”

“I am only doing what I feel is right by you.”

“And what of our sons? Will you make one of them your heir over Empress Wang’s cousin Li Zhong?”

“I am not prepared to do that while she lives.”

“But surely an heir of your own body is better than one who is not?”

“You are very persuasive Zhao but I cannot give this to you.”

“I see,” answered Zhao disappointedly.

“Would coming to my bed tonight make up for that at least a little? You know I love you.” Pretending the offer pleased her, Zhao kissed him before bowing and leaving him to wander the palace.

Five minutes later as she meandered near a decorative pond filled with ornamental fish she spotted the old eunuch who had made her life so difficult when she was cai ren. He bowed as she reached him, “Congratulations, Empress Wu.”

“Are you pleased or annoyed at my elevation?”

“You are bright, educated, and head-strong. You are so different from the others. You served Emperor Taizong well. That is far more than I’ve seen from all the women I’ve seen in the imperial city across my life.”

“You have been in service here for many long years.”

“Yes. It is almost time for me to retire.”

“How soon?”

“Next week.”

“May I ask one final service of you then?”

“Of course.”

“The prisoners—Empress Wang and Consort Xiao—I want them dead.”

“Are you certain that is wise?”

“I am.”

“Buddha might not smile on you for that.”

“Buddha is a myth created to control the people. I know but one world and one life and that is the one we are living. If either of the prisoners continue to live I have little doubt I will be dead soon after. It is them or me. I choose me.”

The eunuch smiled, “I understand completely. Consider it done. All I ask is that you guarantee nothing interferes with my departure next week.”

“I give you my word!” smiled Empress Wu.

Chapter Three: Real Power

“Your Majesty! Your Majesty,” cried a twenty-year-old eunuch as he ran through the imperial city.

Empress Wu stopped and turned towards him, “What is it?”

“You must come quickly! The emperor’s physician has been summoned.”

“What happened?”

“I do not know—but the emperor is calling for you!”

“Lead the way!”

Taking her hand, the eunuch led Empress Wu to the emperor’s bed chamber. The physician looked at her as she entered, “Empress Wu?”

“Yes. What is wrong?”

“A stroke.”

“Will he live?”

“Only Buddha can say.”

“I do not care what Buddha says; you are a man of science; what does your training say?”

“I think he will live, but he will not be the same.”

“Will he walk again?”

“Walk, yes after some bed rest. But speaking or understanding others well enough to govern? I do not think so”

“I can govern.”

“Would not someone else be more suited?” questioned the physician.

“I served as his father’s secretary, my lord. I have experience in these matters.”

“But you are a woman!”

“How can you tell?” asked Empress Wu sarcastically. “I am the best candidate and I am here.” Empress Wu looked into Gaozong’s eyes, “Do I have your blessing in this, my love?”

Emperor Gaozong stammered, struggling to speak, “Y-y-you h-h-help m-me.”

“May I govern on your behalf?”

“Shi!” affirmed the emperor.

Empress Wu turned to the physician, “You heard it from him. I speak for him now.”

Several months later the Gaozong Emperor recovered from his stroke yet remained weak physically. A series of illnesses followed which allowed Empress Wu to retain much of her power and authority as the Gaozong continued to depend on her, especially in times of stress. Finally, on the twenty third of December six hundred eighty-three by the reckoning of the calendar in the West, Gaozong died. Gathering together, the nobles and highest ranking public servants elected Empress Wu’s third son Li Xian was elected to succeed him as the Zhongzong Emperor. Knowing her sons well and realizing such an election meant the end to her power, Empress Wu paced her apartment furiously. As December yielded to January and the start of Chinese New Year festivities, Empress Wu realized what she needed to do: replace one son with another on the throne.

The year of the monkey arrived noisily and with much celebration and fanfare. From Empress Wu’s office the sounds of firecrackers from both within the imperial palace and from the imperial city beyond its gates seemed to sing in a never-ending round of sometimes soft and sometimes deafening rolling and often staccato thunder. Bam b-b-bam bam. Bam bam bam sang the fireworks as children lit massive strings of firecrackers. Nearer to her paraded musicians playing flutes, er hu, yue qin, and almost every other portable instrument available to them. Wu caressed her throbbing temple. As much as she enjoyed the noise and celebration of the New Year personally too much of it brought on stabbing and intense headaches. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, trying to control the pain and clear her blurry vision. Opening her eyes once more she studied the latest reports detailing the success of her programs to increase agriculture production through improved technology and more efficient farming techniques. A criticism of her policy of cutting military spending written by a recently promoted official from Luoyang sat among the cluttered piles, his name matching one of the many benefiting from her efforts to fight corruption through a fairer civil service examination system. Pride flashed through Wu’s heart: as good and kind as the Gaozong was he would never have tolerated such open dissent and criticism.

An aide entered quietly, a massive and carefully printed book dominating over her petite frame, “My lady the team of scholars you paid to collect the histories of our greatest matriarchs has completed the work.”

Wu Zhao rose and took the book from her arms, balancing the heavy tome easily as she opened it upon her desk, “’Liè nǚ chuán, the Biographies of Famous Women’” Flipping through its crisp pages the empress scanned the work, checking its quality. After two minutes, she looked up at her aide, “This is well done. I am very pleased. Send my thanks to each of the scholars who made this possible and invite them to celebrate the new year at the official banquet later this week.”

“Yes, my lady,” bowed her aide.

“One more thing –“


“Tell the printer to prepare copies of this for each of our esteemed guests, including the ones who speak publicly against me. This is a great work and must be celebrated.”

“Yes, my lady!” acknowledged her aide as she bowed once more and left.

Three days later the Imperial City glittered as Emperor Zhongzong and his mother Dowager Empress Wu Zhao hosted the grandest and most spectacular of the Chinese New Year festivities. Trained monkeys performed tricks in homage to the Year of the Monkey. Pairs of Derbyan parakeets harvested from the rain forests of southern Shaanxi province in payment of taxes flew gracefully through imperial aviaries. Opera performers from across China dazzled guests with their acrobatics and music. Firecrackers thundered as lion dances delighted guests. As darkness fell and the sky lit up with fireworks, Dowager Empress Wu slipped away quietly to the imperial ancestral temple. An armoured soldier wearing a heavy coat of plate mail painted black to conceal his whereabouts emerged from the shadows. Empress Wu smiled as she recognized him, “Thank you for meeting me here.”

The soldier fell to his knees respectfully, “I live to serve.”

“Did you find the information I asked for?”

“Yes. You were right about the Son of Heaven.”

“I did not approve of Li Xian’s elevation to the dragon throne as the Zhongzong emperor. He is far too head strong and his empress holds too much influence over him. Surely once the celebrations end she will have me banished from the Imperial City so she may rule China through his bed chamber,” predicted Empress Wu. “I will NOT be banished! Not again! When I was young and a mere cai ren I did not mind it so much, despite the taste of power I enjoyed as Taizong’s secretary. But now I have sons of my own and ruled in Gaozong’s name I find the idea of banishment unthinkable. I shall not yield to any man. I shall not give up my place of power. You will see to it that Zhongzong steps down in favour of his younger brother Li Dan. Li Dan loves me and defers to me in all things. And why should he not? He is only twenty-two; barely more than a boy. I can control him; he will obey me if I wish.”

“As you wish, so shall it be done. Before the next full moon rises to its zenith we shall have a new emperor.”

“Mother, I do not see what is the point of all these policies? Why should not the wealthy hold more power in government posts than the poor? Why should we retire soldiers after such short service? And these scholarships –I do not see the point,” paced Emperor Ruizong from the privacy of his apartment.

Empress Wu stood proudly, the enormous sleeves of her imperial gown blowing in the light breeze coming into the chamber from its open windows, “Because these policies benefit all the people, not just those born to wealth and privilege.”

“But you were born into a wealthy and powerful family,” protested Ruizong, “without that you would not be here.”

“That is true. But is that just? Should women and men born to prosperous families gain the blessings of our rule and policies? Is poverty a fate that can never be escaped? Surely not! The reforms I have put in place in first your father’s name and now in yours have made our country wealthy, safe, and strong. We are the envy of the entire world. Foreigners travel hundreds of li and brave many dangers so as to learn from us and are taking our customs, our policies to their homelands. We are stronger and more prosperous through our good governing than the greatest of military empires. Without these policies we would be no different than the barbarians from Europe who conquered many lands only to fall because their mistreatment of the common people led to their demise.”

“Since when are justice and government one and the same?”

“Er zi, you know I am a Buddhist. But that does not mean I am ignorant of the Dao. Laozi said, ‘…the humble is the root of the noble. The low is the foundation of the high.’ It is wise to be just and wiser still to govern based on what is best for the humblest among us. Treat the people well and you will stay in power. But treat them as the falcon treats the parrot, as nothing more than food to use and kill to fill your own belly, and what you do will not endure. What I have done my whole life will endure. I will be remembered for the good I have done. Can any emperor say the same? Do we not remember Qin She Huang whose tomb lies beneath this city for his cruelty? He united our people and gave us a standardized written language but he did it by hurting others and killing without regard for who he hurt.”

Ruizong scowled, grateful for the privacy of their conversation, “You’ve killed. How many of your own family are not dead because of you? Will you not be judged just as harshly as we judge Qin She Huang?”

“Yes, I have killed and ordered the deaths of many. I confess that to you as the Son of Heaven. In many ways, I am no different than any royal in this imperial city. I did what I needed to do in order to secure power for myself. I do not deny it.

“But I have not sought power for the sake of power. I have sought power so I can make life better for others. In this I have succeeded. Despite the efforts of philosophers determined to take away the rights of women under the law I have given both women and men an equal chance at education and employment. Fewer people suffer now on a daily basis and fewer people are hungry or sick now than ever before, even though there are many more people alive today than when I first came here fifty years ago as Taizong’s cai ren. I am not proud of everything I have done in my life. But I am proud of the way I have influenced our government and the decisions I have made in the names of both you and your father,” declared Empress Wu.

“You really think you are the equal of men, don’t you?” accused Ruizong.

“I am brighter, more educated, and far wiser than most men, yes.”

“As your son, I honour you as my mother. But I am still your emperor and I am still your lord and master! You will do as I say and you will interfere no longer in matters of state. As of right now, I rule in my own right!”

Wu feigned obedience, “As you wish, Your Majesty. May I leave now?”

“You are dismissed,” growled Ruizong.

Empress Wu bowed, “Xiexie.” Pretending to cower away from him, she slipped quietly out of his apartment and back to her own where the soldier who helped her depose Emperor Zhongzong waited for her. The soldier bowed as she addressed him. “Did you hear all of my conversation with the Son of Heaven?”

“I did. What do you wish of me?”

“Gather together those loyal to me from across the realm. We will depose this petulant child – slowly and without anyone knowing what we are doing.”

“You wish him poisoned to death?”

“No, leave him alive. Let him be the last emperor of the Tang dynasty.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“A new dynasty from a new capital. Let Luoyang serve as my capital under my control. I will call it the ‘Zhou’ dynasty and I will rule it myself as emperor with Buddhism as the official religion of China.”

“You will rule in your own right then?”

“With all the power and privileges of any male emperor – including those of the bed chamber.”

“If you go so far, people will judge you,” warned the soldier.

“Let them. The people benefit from my government. Their bellies are full and their sons no longer die in war. They are better educated and have more freedom of speech under my rule than any generation has enjoyed from the beginning of time. The people will be glad to have me as emperor. Mark me: what I do and plan to do shall change their lives and the lives of countless generations more than any other ruler in China. Even if they forget my name, they will live my legacy forever.”

Two years later fireworks sounded across Luoyang as Empress Wu triumphantly entered her new capital. With much pomp and circumstance a Buddhist master placed the imperial crown on her head, “In the name of Heaven and Earth and guided by the wisdom of Buddha, I crown you emperor!”

Humbled for the moment by her triumph, Wu Zhao met the shifu’s eyes before turning to the nearby crowds watching and listening to her coronation, “’May the merit of my practice adorn Buddhas’ Pure Lands, requite the fourfold kindness from above, and relieve the suffering of the three life-journeys below. Universally wishing sentient beings, friends, foes, and karmic creditors, all to activate the Bodhi mind, and all to be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.’ All the reforms I have made in the name of others I shall expand upon. Gone are the days where the people labour and suffer to serve the selfish wants of those who have more than they need. In this sacred place where the sage gave us the Dao de Jing and more than one million people dwell, where the greatest poets and writers wrote and continue to write their master pieces and where the Silk Road enters our empire, here, in this city we are a beacon of light to the world. For here, for the first time in human history we declare the equality of women and the right of women to rule over all people – rich and poor, mighty and feeble, foolish and wise, male and female, Buddhist and Daoist. What say you my people? Will you stand with me?”

A woman with her daughter in her arms worked her way to the front of the crowd, “I will!” Falling to her knees she bowed her forehead to the ground in reverence, “Huangdi wan sui!”

Impressed by her courage more people fell to their knees to bow before their emperor, “Wan sui!”

“Wan sui! Wan sui!” echoed the rippling crowd as more and more people heard the empress’ speech repeated, each falling to their knees and bowing with their heads to the ground out of respect.

As the bowing crowd passed over one thousand Empress Wu blinked with amazement, tears of joy falling from her eyes, “Praise Buddha, I have done it!”


Captain Richard James Mann held Hua-Lin’s hands, his breath taken away by the story, “Then what happened?”

“Empress Wu ruled as empress regnant for eight years from Luoyang, enjoying all of the power and privileges granted to male emperors of China before returning to Chang An and restoring the Tang dynasty just months before her death. Those who were displeased that a woman dared rule over men were especially unhappy that she kept men as her concubines just as Taizong once keep hundreds of women as his concubines.”

“A woman had sex with multiple men?” asked Captain Mann.

“What is so scandalous about that when men of power from across history have indulged in these things with whatever women they desired –married or not? I heard it spoken that there have been kings of England who kept male lovers. So why judge Empress Wu for doing any different from what men of power do?”

“You cannot be serious! Women and men are different!”

“Are we? Does not your United Kingdom have a queen regnant now? Queen Victoria?”

“Queen Victoria is our queen, but she does not make the day to day decisions of ruling the empire. That is done by our prime minister William Ewart Gladstone of the Liberal Party, a man absolutely hated by another of our great statesmen, Benjamin Disraeli.”

“Are you saying that your queen is not responsible for the wars and humiliations my people have suffered at British hands?”

Captain Mann rose to study the beautiful room around him, “On some level, perhaps she does bear responsibility—but the decision to go to war, to take this beautiful place from China and from you personally was not made by her, no. I wish with all my heart I could undo what was done. I wish I could wipe away all the opium dens and make true reparations to you and to the emperor for all of this. But alas, I cannot. I am a simple soldier, my lady. My duty is to follow orders, to do as those above me command.”

“Many terrible acts of violence come from soldiers simply doing what they are told, Captain,” reminded Hua-Lin.

“Oh please do not call me that! Call me Richard, I beg you!”

Hua-Lin rose and took his hand, “Richard, you cannot blindly obey orders, not if you honour and respect my people. If you think this Arrow War will be the last act of aggression against my homeland, you are certainly mistaken. Serve your country, but not at the expense of your soul. In China people have blindly obeyed tyrants because the teachings of Confucius say that disobedience is the greater sin. Perhaps that is another reason why so many who follow the teachings of Confucius have such a low opinion of Empress Wu. She dared say that doing what is right is more important than doing what you are told. When the world said that women are lesser to men, she dared show them otherwise.”

“Just like Queen Boudicca did one thousand eight hundred years ago,” remembered Captain Mann.

“Yes, exactly like that. Your Boudicca led armies into battle. Empress Wu Zetian led a different sort of army: an army of scholars. Thanks to Empress Wu’s reforms in education, in the civil service examination system, and in how people are hired for good paying government jobs China became a meritocracy. Education took centre stage in our culture, allowing for the many technological and cultural advances that have made us the envy of the world. There is not one person on this Earth who is not affected by her years of public service and by her wise rule.”

“She really was the brightest and wisest of your people,” agreed Captain Mann.

“There are people who are smarter, more educated, perhaps wiser in China and around the world. But this no one can deny: the world is a better place because she dared defy traditional ideas of womanhood. She dared do what is right, not just for herself, but for all people.”


598 CE 28th January Birth of Li Shimin (李世民) to Li Yuan, a chancellor in the Sui dynasty.

618 CE Li Yuan overthrows the Sui dynasty and founds the Tang dynasty as Emperor Gaozu

624 CE Birth of Wu Zhao in Wenshui County in Shanxi province to Wu Shihuo.

626 CE 4th September Li Shimin succeeds his father as Emperor Taizong.

628 CE 21st July Birth of Li Zhi (李治) to Emperor Taizong and Empress Zhangsun.

638 CE Wu Zhao enters the imperial city as Cai Ren (5th rank concubine) to Emperor Taizong before assuming duties as one of the emperor’s secretaries.

649 CE 10th July death of Emperor Taizong. Ascent of Li Zhi as Emperor Gaozong shortly after.

651-652 CE Wu Zhao summoned to Gaozong’s court and made Zhao Yi (2nd rank concubine).

652 Wu Zhao gives birth to her first son, Li Hong

653 Wu Zhao gives birth to her second son, Li Xian (李賢).

654 Wu Zhao gives birth to a daughter. Empress Wang’s proximity to the baby right before she is found dead makes the palace suspect Wang murdered the child.

655 CE Wu Zhao made Empress of China by Gaozong Emperor. Empress Wang and Consort Xiao are murdered.

656 CE Wu Zhao gives birth to third son, Li Xian (李顯), also known as Li Zhe (李哲).

660 CE Gaozong Emperor suffers crippling stroke; Wu Zhao takes over government administration as de facto ruler.

662 June 22. Empress Wu gives birth to Prince Li Dan (李旦), the future Ruizong emperor

675 CE Empress Wu commissions, “Biographies of Famous Women” (列女傳)

683 CE 27th December death of Emperor Gaozong. Li Xian(李顯)becomes Emperor Zhongzong.

684 25th January. The year of the monkey begins.

684 CE February Wu Zhao deposes Emperor Zhongzong and replaces him with her fourth son, Li Dan who ascends the throne as Emperor Ruizong.

690 CE Wu Zhao declares herself emperor of the new Zhou dynasty, moving the capital from Chang An to Luoyang.

698 CE Empress Wu reinstates the Tang dynasty, moving the capital back to Chang An and making Li Xian (Emperor Zhongzong) her crown prince.

705 CE A palace coup d’état deposes Empress Wu. Zhongzong Emperor restored to power. Empress Wu is given the title “Zetian.”

705 CE December death of Empress Wu.

710 CE Emperor Zhongzong (Li Xian李顯) dies.

716 CE former Emperor Ruizong dies.

Suggested Reading

Tang Dynasty

Emperors of the Tang Dynasty


Chang An

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